By now, I just accept the fact that Adrian Tchaikovsky can write about anything in SFF and do it brilliantly. Children of Memory, which follows the award-winning Children of Time and Children of Ruin, continues this great saga of human evolution and species uplift in multiple star systems. There is a moving and exciting story at its core, deeply engaging drama testing the limits of reality and identity, and a good encapsulated background of the earlier stories in case you haven’t read the previous books. But there is also a surfeit of intellectual discussion that keeps postponing a final reveal, and, for the first time in my experience of this author’s work, that reveal is a bit disappointing, even though it works in its own way. I can’t really discuss what happens in this novel without some spoiler-ish elements, so proceed at your own risk.
Children of Memory starts by drawing together three strands of the narrative. First, we’re with the core crew of the Enkidu, a huge ship with thousands of sleep-suspended humans aboard. It has escaped from a dying Earth and is heading for a new home where preliminary terraforming is supposed to have prepared a new human world. But there are problems. The Enkidu has breakdowns and multiple repairs, several crew members have been maimed or killed on the approach to Imir, and many of the human cargo have died and been jettisoned. Then the planet Imir isn’t what they were expecting, as drones reveal a poorly developed surface with only microbes and lichen on the land and plankton in the oceans, though the air is breathable. With hard work, Imir may be able to support a small settlement but not the many thousands of humans suspended in sleep.
We first see the result of settlement years later through the eyes of a young girl named Liff. She is twenty-six Imiri years old, and that translates to about twelve in Earth years. She lives with her parents on a farm at the edge of the town called Landfall near the forest of trees the settlers succeeded in planting. It’s a hard life, and some towns-folk have been blaming mysterious “others” for crop failures and breakdowns. The forest has become a forbidding zone where groups of Seccers or Watchers, imagined enemies whom no one has even seen, may be lurking. One evening, Liff sees her grandfather, Heorest Holt, who was the captain of the Enkidu, disappear into the woods. She is convinced he has gone to find a Witch, as she calls a powerful figure who, Liff imagines, lives there in a cave. It becomes her mission to enter that forest, find the Witch and get her grandfather back.
Children of Memory then steps back in time as another ship, named Skipper, enters orbit around Imir. Its crew includes uplifted spiders and octopuses from the worlds explored in the earlier books, along with a composite entity they call Miranda who can enter a human body. With them are a pair of semi-sentient ravens, the brilliant characters Gothi and Gethli. Gothi is endlessly curious and records every detail of experience while Gethli is able to perceive patterns in the data and explain how things function. They work together and form an almost sentient being between them, who can also appear as a pair of humans. With them on the Skipper is the uploaded mind of Avrana Kern, the genius whose failed efforts to seed life on another world led to the formation of the spider civilization. She is frequently consulted and can appear in hologram form.
This group decides to send an expedition to see what life is like among the settlers of Landfall, and Miranda takes the lead. She becomes a teacher in the town while the others take on other roles, one as a mechanical whiz who can fix anything and another as an artist. Liff feels especially close to Miranda who can explain so many new things to her.
The story comes to a head fairly early in the novel when suspicious men of Landfall form a militia and search for outsiders whom they can blame for all the community’s problems. In this classic turning against any “others” they can find, they settle on Miranda and her companions. The action is suspended there as we hear an extended commentary on what has just happened from Gothi and Gethli, or rather their questioning of what they have seen, mixed with quotations that may or may not be relevant, as they raise over and over again the question of whether they are really sentient or just parroting. Their frequent dialogues are brilliantly funny and offer a puzzled chorus on the action as they try to figure out what’s been happening.
The narrative shifts among Liff, Miranda, and Gothi and Gethli, so that we are getting multiple perspectives. The story moves about in time to probe more deeply into each of the character’s backgrounds, natures and the memory of who they are. I had a sense of experiencing the story in intersecting spirals of time and perspective, going backward and forward in time. Each turn of a spiral brought new insight about the nature of each character and bigger issues of existence, but all this is centered in human terms in the story of Liff and the hardscrabble life of the people of Landfall.
But there are strange things about Liff’s experience. She claims to have seen her grandfather Heorest Holt, even though he died two hundred years earlier. Sometimes we see her in scenes with her parents, sometimes her parents are dead and she’s living with her harsh uncle, sometimes she is in the midst of meetings of the town’s founders, including Holt, as they discuss what to do about community problems. Sometimes, Liff goes in search of the Witch, sometimes that figure comes to seek her out. In each of these shifting scenes, we are drawn more and more deeply into mysteries of memory, time and reality.
This is heady stuff, and, as the story unfolds and reveals the reasons behind the strange inconsistencies, there are long stretches that seem more like a Platonic dialogue on sentience and the nature of reality than fiction. There were times I got impatient with the endless debates and yearned for more simple action, but Tchaikovsky is aiming for something much more complex and challenging. I wasn’t too happy with the way all the strands of the story finally came together, but in spite of my reservations, the story as a whole has a strong emotional impact. That is because Tchaikovsky always manages to make his characters believable as they struggle to understand their existence. For me, their tortured efforts to get through all the confusing layers of memory to find what is real to them is always moving, always deeply human.
Just as the other books in this series end on a positive note of the continuing journeys through space to find new life, so does Children of Memory. But this story makes it so clear how difficult the search is and how rare it will be to find that subtle variance of chemistry that enables a new form of existence to detach itself from the void. Tchaikovsky is always trying something new and meaningful, and while this book may not be completely successful, it offers a powerful and thought-provoking experience.
My thanks to Orbit and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Children of Memory as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.